By Randal C. Archibold, Damien Cave and Elizabeth Malkin
The New York Times
In a shootout this month in Yurécuaro, Mexican soldiers killed four men said to be members of a drug gang. A bystander was also killed, the local media said.
As the twilight of his presidency sets in, President Felipe Calderón of Mexico is striving to lock in the militarized approach to drug cartels that has defined his tenure, pushing aside public doubts and pressing lawmakers to adopt strategies he hopes will outlast him.
Mr. Calderón has recently stepped up calls for Mexico’s Congress to approve stalled initiatives to remake state and local police forces, codify the military’s role in fighting crime and broaden its powers, toughen the federal penal code and tighten laws to stop money laundering.
At this pivotal point, with violence swelling and presumptive candidates jockeying for position ahead of Mexico’s presidential election in July, Mr. Calderón has limited time to make the case that his strategy has worked.
He insists that the country will eventually become more secure, although about 40,000 people have been killed since he declared his war against organized crime. He began waging it shortly after taking office in 2006 as violence climbed, and he has continued pressing his offensive against drug organizations as they have splintered and descended into bloody infighting over territory and criminal rackets.
But in a wide-ranging interview, he could not say that his approach had made Mexico safer.
“What I can say is Mexico will be safer,” he said, “and to have not acted, it would have deteriorated much more.”
It is a nuanced, difficult argument to make as his party, the right-of-center National Action Party, faces the real prospect of losing the presidency, raising the question of whether Mr. Calderón’s approach will continue after his six-year term ends next year. Term limits prevent him from running again.
The killings in Mexico have reached such a point, analysts say, that no matter who wins the election, there will be intense pressure for a new course to somehow ease the violence without giving in to the cartels. The new president will also face demands from the United States, which has invested heavily in personnel, equipment and expertise and whose political leaders worry about the growing reach of transnational gangs.
“There seems to be a growing consensus that there needs to be a more refined strategy, a more targeted strategy, a more nuanced strategy,” said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It’s anybody’s guess what that will be.”
The inability to control the violence, with fresh horrors nearly every week, has rattled even some admirers in the United States Congress, who have begun to question publicly whether Mr. Calderón’s strategy — supported by the $1.4 billion in anticrime aid the United States is providing through the multiyear Merida Initiative — is making progress.
“I admire him for taking them head on, which is a very dangerous thing to do,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security. “He is the first president to confront the problem and do something about it. But has it been 100 percent successful? Not at all. It seems to keep getting worse.”
The Obama administration, too, while consistently praising Mr. Calderón for taking on the cartels and making some gains against its leaders, has remained concerned about the violence, the spread of Mexican drug gangs into Central America, and the slow pace of strengthening law enforcement and judicial institutions.
“Mexico’s military and police still struggle to break the trafficking organizations or contain criminal violence,” Philip S. Goldberg, an assistant secretary of state, testified in a House hearing on Thursday. He also said that “rising violence is taking a toll on public perceptions of the government’s ability to defeat the trafficking organizations.”
As he took stock of his presidency, Mr. Calderón emphasized what he considered his triumphs, including creating jobs, expanding health care, arresting or killing more than two dozen cartel leaders, and pushing efforts to build trustworthy police and judicial institutions, as well as social programs to fight the root causes of crime.
Still, coming close to self-criticism for someone who has typically blamed the United States or Mexican lawmakers for what goes wrong, Mr. Calderón said he would have shored up state and local police forces that were now overwhelmed as well as hobbled by inexperience, lack of training, incompetence and corruption.
“We would have done it in a more aggressive, much more determined way from the start,” he said.
No doubt, especially outside Mexico, Mr. Calderón, whom American officials credit for raising cooperation with United States law enforcement agencies to extraordinary levels, has won praise for taking on the fight and steering the Mexican economy through the global financial crisis.
“He has done amazing things for Mexico,” said Susan Segal, president of the Americas Society in New York, which gave Mr. Calderón an award last month to a standing ovation. “Mexico has some of the best economic management in the world, and this is the first time Mexico has taken on a lot of really bad people.”
But back at home his approval among voters, 53 percent, according to a recent poll, has fallen to a point lower than the ratings for any recent Mexican president at this point in the six-year term.
“He has not been able, maybe because it has been very difficult to impossible, to explain to Mexicans why the security fight is worth fighting,” said Luis de la Calle, Mexico’s under secretary for international trade from 1999 to 2002.
While Mr. Calderón is barred by law from publicly endorsing a candidate, associates have said he favors his former finance minister, Ernesto Cordero, who has suggested keeping the current public security minister in his cabinet and promises to continue the administration’s economic policies. But Mr. Cordero trails most of the other candidates.
Instead, the party that dominated Mexico for 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, could well return to the presidency, invoking a time when criminal organizations and government officials kept the peace but corroded the political system. The party’s presumed front-runner for the nomination, Enrique Peña Nieto, leads most polls significantly, though political analysts caution against giving that too much weight so early in the process.
Mr. Calderón looked disgusted at the mere mention of the PRI. When told that Mr. Peña Nieto had criticized the deployment of the military in a recent BBC interview, saying it showed a lack of planning, Mr. Calderón scoffed.
“Imagine me, president of Mexico, waiting 5 or 10 years” to take action “while criminals come to your house, taking advantage of people, taking governments they wanted,” he said. “It’s absurd.”
Mr. Calderón has also warned American legislators about his political rivals.
“He said the PRI candidate is going to be weak on this issue and sleep in the same bed as the cartels,” said Mr. McCaul, the Texas Republican.
Mr. Peña Nieto declined to comment, but in interviews with local news media he has not outlined a plan drastically different from Mr. Calderón’s.
That may reflect the public mood, with polls like one by the Pew Research Center conducted last spring showing that while only 45 percent think the government is making progress in its campaign against drug cartels, 83 percent support the use of the military in the crackdown.
One change Mr. Calderón has pressed for would give the president wide latitude to declare a state of emergency and suspend constitutional guarantees, provoking criticism that the plan would worsen abuses by the military.
Locking in the changes he seeks and solidifying his legacy may be difficult because Mr. Calderón, who won a narrow victory in 2006, faces a divided legislature whose members are already focusing on next year’s election. Efforts to revamp local and state police forces under a unified command have languished for months.
Mr. Calderón has toured Mexico and the United States, trumpeting economic gains, the expansion of health care to most Mexicans, and the construction of roads and hundreds of hospitals.
He has remained steadfast in his relationship with the United States, despite obvious friction. While he pushed for the ouster of the previous American ambassador, who had derided Mexican law enforcement and military agencies in diplomatic cables, he declined to criticize the United States over a program known as “Fast and Furious” in which American agents lost track of weapons they had allowed to cross into Mexico, with dozens ending up at crime scenes.
Mr. Calderón said he learned of the program just after meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington, from a newspaper account. It troubled him, he said, but lashing out at the United States would not serve Mexico’s interests.
“If I take the bait and go against President Obama, against the A.T.F.,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “the only thing I’m doing is weakening what I know are true allies and falling into the strategy of those who are really damaging Mexico, such as gun dealers.”
All in all, Mr. Calderón said he made no apologies.
“I don’t heed what they say in the polls,” he said. “Mexico must be cleaned up, and it is up to me to do it.”